01/08/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2012

Why Republicans Support Government Mandates

Mitt Romney's Iowa victory and his subsequent polling numbers in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida suggest that likely Republican voters have softened their concerns over the Massachusetts health care legislation (a.k.a., "Romneycare") he signed into law.

Romney has been able to make the case that he has no problem with state issued mandates but opposes them for the federal government. His principled claim is that he opposes one-sized fits all approaches to solving the nation's problems, and that Governors know what's best for their states; even if presidents overreach in knowing what's best for the country.

This argument is commonsensical to enough Republicans who initially found duplicity in his pro-Romneycare, anti-Obamacare stance. Yet, if one actually follows the logic, then Romney is either for government mandates, or against anything the federal government does.

A state mandate is, of course, still a mandate, and all federal legislation is a one-sized fits all approach. So, what should we make of the acceptance of Romney as the GOP front-runner, given his support of mandates and his anti-"Obamacare" position? I'd point to a common culprit: motivated reasoning to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Motivated reasoning leads people to ignore some pieces of information to support what they already believe (i.e., they are motivated to maintain some position), and cognitive dissonance is a discomfort brought about because one holds contradictory beliefs. The discomfort is directly related to how one feels about themselves, thus, people are motivated to reduce it. After all, who wants feel bad about who they are?

By arguing that states have rights Romney has tapped a principled belief of Republicans that allows them to hold two contradictory beliefs: government mandates are bad, and I want to support a candidate -- the one with the best chance of beating Obama -- who believes in mandates. By softening opposition to government mandates because they are imposed by states, self-identifying Republicans can maintain positive feelings about themselves (I am good), rather than feeling anxious or hypocritical (I am flip-flopping) in supporting a candidate who imposed a mandate.

In essence, Republicans reduce their disagreement about mandates by using an agreed upon belief in states' rights. This is a simpler process than changing one's opinion to support mandates, because that would require agreeing with Obama's policy. Simply put, Romney has strategically used one principle to assuage another.

When anti-mandate Republicans weigh concerns over Romney's past policy, they likely go through the following process: 1) I'm a Republican, I am good, 2) I'm against government mandates, mandates are wrong and I am right, 3) Obama signed a law that requires a mandate, he is wrong, 4), Romney signed a mandate into law, he is wrong, 5) but, Romney is a Republican and supports states' rights, Republicans are good and I agree with states' rights, 6) Some mandates are acceptable provided they come from states, I am right and good.

Note that the shared Republican identity between Romney and the individual can lead one away from the conclusions that Romney is wrong, or that Obama's mandate is acceptable. This is because individuals do not want to contradict the idea that they are "good Republicans" who are "right."

This is an oversimplification of both Romney's argument and the process of reducing internal disagreement to feel better about one's self, and not all Republicans take this position. But, this process highlights the importance of political communication with the public.

Political and social psychologists know the public is comprised of individuals who are similarly affected by framing. Frames help put things in context for the public, often with detrimental consequences. By framing a government mandate in terms of an existing pro-states' rights belief, Romney has actually won over individuals who are against government mandates.

Romney's argument keeps most Republicans at bay because it taps into their principled beliefs about states' rights, and is simple. Yet, it also implies he is either duplicitous on the mandate issue or that he is against any and all federal legislation.

It remains to be seen whether any members of the public actually question Romney or other anti-mandate pro-Romneycare politicos on this point. I doubt they will because the argument can get nuanced, and anti-nuance is a foundation of political communication.